Friday, September 26, 2014

A high school student’ email interview with screenwriter, director, lyricist, writer Dean Pitchford

Recently, a student asked Dean Pitchford, author of NICKEL BAY NICK, CAPTAIN NOBODY, and THE BIG ONE-OH (Penguin Group), if he could do an email interview with him about his work in films and music for his high school literary magazine. Fortunately for the student, the timing was perfect and Dean was able to do the interview. We thought we'd share it with Balkin Buddies' followers. Here it is:

STUDENT: What is the process like for writing a song vs other forms of writing?

DEAN: The first and foremost difference between writing lyrics to a song and writing anything else is that the words to a song must mesh with that song’s music.

And when we’re talking about music, that opens up an entire field of discussion. What I have written for pop performers (Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, e.g.) is different from what I write for the stage (CARRIE, FOOTLOOSE, etc.) Of course, every kind of music has its own rhythm and ‘feel,’ so I always work closely with my collaborators (the music writers) to establish the specific character of the song.

Then I spend a lot of time naming my songs; a song’s title – especially in the world of pop music – is very important, because it’s the ‘handle’ by which listeners grab hold of the song. Titles like FOOTLOOSE, HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO and YOU SHOULD HEAR HOW SHE TALKS ABOUT YOU tend to stick in peoples’ memories.

It can take me anywhere from a day to a month to write a song (FAME took four weeks!) And that means working every day, six to eight hours a day … until my brain is too scrambled and fuzzy with rhythms and rhymes to process any more.

STUDENT: Where do you get the inspiration for the songs you write? (Personal experience, spur of the moment, etc?)

DEAN: I take inspiration from anywhere I can get it. Friends have seen me jump up in the middle of a conversation to write down something they (or I) said, simply because it sounded like a good line or title for a song. I pluck phrases out of books I’m reading or from the dialogue on a television show. Sometimes I mis-hear a lyric of a song on the radio, and when I realize my error, I think I like my botched version of the lyric better than the one I heard.

And I keep notebooks in which I write down all of these ideas. Even if I’ve written something on the back of a napkin over dinner, I’ll transfer that scribble into my notebook so that everything stays in the same place.

(I also keep notebooks for screenplay and book ideas.)

STUDENT: What’s a typical day in the life of Dean Pitchford?

DEAN: The cool thing about the way my career has evolved is that there IS no typical day. Depending on what I’m working on at any given moment, I may sit down to work on a song, or go off to a writing appointment with collaborators. Other times, I’ll lock myself in my office to continue outlining a book idea.

Mixed in with all of this, I have to attend to business. I’ve always had to set aside some part of the day to deal with music publishers, lawyers, agents, etc. Because I live in L.A. and I’m dealing with Nashville and New York City a lot, those calls will often happen in the morning. In the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of business in London, and planning early morning phone calls to catch my representatives in their offices in the late afternoon is always tricky.

STUDENT: What’s the toughest decision you had to make while working in the entertainment industry? 

DEAN: I had moved to New York City right out of college to perform on Broadway, so I have a deep and long-standing love affair with that city. When it became apparent that my work in the music business –specifically, the film music business – was taking off, I made the decision to move to Los Angeles, which doesn’t thrill me the way NYC does. To make up for that, I return to New York three or four times a year… to see Broadway shows, visit the museums, and catch up with old friends.

STUDENT: What has been the most rewarding project you have worked on?

DEAN: FOOTLOOSE was, without a doubt, the most rewarding project I’ve ever undertaken. It was because of the success of (and Academy Award for) FAME that I was given the chance to write the screenplay AND all the original songs in the 1984 film of FOOTLOOSE. That meant that I was involved from the first draft of the script, through all the pre-production and shooting, through the recording of every song and the post-production of the picture. I learned tons during that process and got to work with some of the smartest and most creative people in the business.

Fifteen years later, when I was persuaded to adapt the film for the Broadway stage, I once again had an opportunity to work with a talented team as we wrote a new script, added new songs, explored the work in two separate workshops, cast the show, rehearsed it in New York, and then previewed out of town at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The day after it opened on Broadway in 1998, FOOTLOOSE broke the box office record for the Richard Rogers Theatre in NYC. So TWICE that story has given me wonderful experiences.

STUDENT: How has your earlier work in let’s say FOOTLOOSE (1984) changed from your more current work like THE PIRATE’S DOG?

DEAN: When I wrote FOOTLOOSE, I truly had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know Hollywood, didn’t understand the business, couldn’t grasp what it was the studios wanted… nothing! So I ended up writing something that was very personal to me, but was treated like an ugly duckling for a very long time. It was rejected by a lot of studios, because nobody was making musicals then. Finally, a couple of brave producers and a wonderful director (Herbert Ross) got behind the project, and its very oddness became its greatest strength.

As my career went along, I continued to get the same advice from my agents, telling me to write such and such a project because the studios were looking for that subject matter. I’d occasionally sell a project or get a film made, but the more I strove to fulfill the wishes of my agents and studio executives, the less I recognized my own interests in my work. Which is why I finally – after PIRATE’S DOG actually – stopped writing in the motion picture industry and turned my efforts to writing books (while continuing to write songs.)

STUDENT: Can you tell us about the challenges of directing and screenwriting? Any behind the scenes anecdotes you can share with us?

DEAN: Screenwriting is, by and large, a very solitary endeavor. It’s not unusual for a screenwriter to deliver his work, sit through the first table-read with the cast, and then never be involved again until he shows up for the opening night party.

My involvement as a songwriter keeps me more involved than that, but a lot of the work is still done in intimate settings… around a piano, in a recording studio, at a desk. (At least when I work on a stage show, I’m able to spend my days in rehearsal rooms surrounded by the cast and other creators; writing a script or the songs for a motion picture is, on the other hand, quite isolated work.])

Directing, however, is a roller coaster ride. A director does his most important work before cameras start to roll. It can take months and months to get the script in shape, cast the film, find locations, choose the designers and set a schedule. Then comes that first day of shooting when suddenly EVERYBODY’s there! You’ve got actors looking to you for direction; a photographer who needs to consult you for every camera shot; designers presenting you with sketches and samples of sets and costumes you’ll be shooting a week in the future… and this has all got to be handled smoothly while the clock is ticking and the money is rapidly being spent. It’s a whirlwind… but extremely exciting.

One of my more memorable experiences came while I was directing a film for HBO called BLOOD BROTHERS: THE JOEY DiPAOLO STORY. We were shooting on a tight schedule and an even tighter budget. We needed several shots of subway trains – not underground but out in Brooklyn, where they run above the streets. Although our producer had applied for permits to shoot on the train platforms, our application had not been processed by the time we got to the shooting day. So it was decided that a small skeleton crew – me, the director of photography and a sound man – would grab the necessary footage without permits. So I helped lug equipment up many flights of stairs, where we’d race to set up the camera and get our shots. That didn’t sit so well with the transit police who kept chasing us off the platforms. We never got caught, but we got very winded running from the authorities. Eventually we got enough bits and pieces of enough trains coming and going that we were able to stitch together what we needed.

BALKIN BUDDIES (breaking into the interview to interject: “BLOOD BROTHERS: THE JOEY DiPAOLO STORY won the 1992 Cable Ace Award for Best Children’s Program.

STUDENT: What advice might you have for aspiring writers?

DEAN: If you want to write, then the only thing you can do is… write. Write everything that comes into your head, don’t edit ideas as they come to you, and be sure to keep all your writing in one place. Not only will filling a notebook assure you that your ideas stay organized… but once you fill your first notebook, and then another and another… you can enjoy that sense of accomplishment that comes from knowing you’re on the path to creativity.

The other – and equally important – advice I’d give is this:  don’t be a passive absorber of the culture you experience!  What does that mean? It means that you must participate in all the media you consume. Instead of sitting in front of the TV or movie screen and letting the content wash over you,  stay alert… check in with yourself at all times to gauge what you’re experiencing. Are you excited? Why? What did the creators do to hook you and keep you hooked? Are you getting bored? Why? Where did the creators lose you?

The same thing applies to songs. Instead of listening to a song, humming along, and having no idea what you just heard, pay attention. Listen to the words; how do they involve you… or not? What about the rhythms and the melody and the voices catches your ear… or not?

And books!! This is especially important in books. As you read along, constantly take your ‘intellectual temperature,’ i.e., be aware of how the author has involved you… or not. Did you have an idea of where the story would go, and then it DIDN’T go there?! How did that make you feel? Do you admire the author for his story or do you have your own ideas of how you would have bettered the same story?

You do? Then write ‘em down!

And write everything else that passes through your head. And eventually all that scribbling might grow up to be a song… or a script… or a Broadway show… or even a novel!

It happened to me.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Dori Hillestad Butler interviews Aurore Damant, the illustrator of Dori's THE HAUNTED LIBRARY series

As Dori points out in the preamble to the interview, authors rarely know the illustrators of their books. So on Cynthia Leitich Smith's CYNSATIONS blog, she finally got to know Aurore Damant, the illustrator of her THE HAUNTED LIBRARY series -- by interviewing her!

Learn more about both of them in this fun read.

Jan Spivey Gilchrist to receive the Zora Neale Hurston Award, the highest honor given by the National Association of Black Storytellers

 We're pleased to announce that Jan Spivey Gilchrist has been selected to receive the Zora Neale Hurston Award, the highest honor given by the National Associationof Black Storytellers, Inc. (NABS). She will accept the award at their 32nd Annual National Black Storytelling Festival and Conference celebration. Here are the what-when-and-where details:

”Lighting The Way” Story Walkin’ 
~ Rhythm Talkin’
The Chicago Hilton Oak Lawn
Oak Lawn, Illinois
Saturday, November 15, 2014
Awards Presented 6:45 PM – 7:00 PM
(Prior to the Zora Neale Hurston Concert)

Founded by storytellers Mary Carter and Linda Goss to give more opportunities for African American storytellers to be heard and for more of the rich heritage of the African Oral Tradition to be shared and preserved, the National Association of Black Storytellers has been sponsoring the festival since 1983. We hope you'll visit their website to learn about tickets, registration and the other events held during the festival.

If you’re in the area, we hope you can attend. In the meantime, please join us in congratulating Ms. Gilchrist on her growing number of prestigious awards.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

ALSC interviews Dori Hillestad Butler

 This was posted by Megan Smith to the official blog of the Association for LibraryService to Children (ALSC) on September 10, 2014:

Ghosts add spooky suspense in this new mystery series, The Haunted Library, written by Edgar Award author Dori Hillestad Butler and illustrated by Aurore Damant.  In this interview, Dori Hillestad Butler shares the role libraries have played in shaping her work and the background behind these haunting books for young readers.  I received a complimentary copy of the first two books in this series before this interview.  

ALSC: As children’s librarians, we often share just a little bit of detail about books with audiences to get them interested in checking out material.  What information would you share with children interested in learning more about The Haunted Library series?

DORI: It’s a series about a ghost boy named Kaz and a “solid” girl named Claire who work together to solve ghostly mysteries. Each book is a stand-alone mystery, but as the series goes on Kaz and Claire are also trying to find Kaz’s missing family. Kaz was separated from his family when their old haunt was torn down. The books are a little bit scary, not too scary. The ghosts aren’t dead people. They’re more like transparent people with superpowers.

ALSC: What role did reading play in your life as a child? What types of books did you most enjoy?
I was a huge reader. I didn’t spend a lot of time with other kids outside of school. I spent most of my time curled up with a good book. I most enjoyed realistic fiction and mysteries.

DORI: What have you appreciated most about libraries throughout your life? How do you believe youth services librarians can best develop this appreciation in children?

DORI: If you’d asked me this when I was a kid, I’d have said, “all the books!” I couldn’t buy a lot of books when I was a kid. But I could take home as many as I wanted and keep them for two weeks and then bring them back and get MORE. How cool was that? But when I think about what it is I appreciate about libraries as an adult, I guess it’s still a variation on “all the books.” As an adult, I understand the library’s role in a community much better than I did when I was a child. A good library serves the needs of EVERYONE in the community. That doesn’t mean that every book in the library is one *I* want to read, but rather everyone in a community should be able to walk into a library and find a book they want to read. Given what a diverse nation we are, that is a pretty incredible thing. I think youth services librarians can help children develop an appreciation for libraries by showing them this diversity and reinforcing the idea that it doesn’t matter who you are, the library has materials for everyone.

ALSC: Youth services librarians see that many children gravitate to books that are part of a series as they build confidence in their reading abilities. What type of child reader do you think would most enjoy The Haunted Library series?

DORI: Kids who love ghost stories, of course. But I think the series might also appeal to reluctant readers, kids who don’t like to read. At least I hope it does. Ghosts are a high interest topic. I’d also like to see librarians hand a Haunted Library book to a kid who feels he’s not good at anything or a kid who’s really struggling to learn something. Kaz, the main character in The Haunted Library, is a ghost who struggles to learn his ghost skills. Even his little brother knows how to glow and wail and pass through walls, but Kaz struggles with every one of these skills. But he keeps working on his skills and as the series progresses, he has some success.

ALSC: Your Ghostly Glossary defines some pretty spooky and cool ghost behaviors and could be used as a way for librarians to introduce this series to children.  How did the idea to include a Ghostly Glossary come about as you were developing these books?

DORI: I planned on a ghostly glossary right from the start. I knew I was going to create a ghostly world and my ghostly world was likely to be different from other authors’ ghostly worlds. I knew I would invent vocabulary. The glossary grew out of that. I also like to think it’s a FUN glossary. And I know sometimes kids think glossaries and dictionaries can be boring. I want to demonstrate that glossaries (and even words themselves!) are fun and interesting.

ALSC: Children’s libraries offer reading material in a variety of genres.  What role do you believe mysteries play in developing children’s reading interests and abilities?         

DORI: Mysteries reinforce problem solving skills. Readers learn to read carefully so they don’t miss any clues. They observe. They sift through the evidence and use logic to form hypotheses. And then they keep reading to find out whether they’re right. I think mysteries are a good way to reach the reluctant reader, too. Mysteries tend to have fast-moving plots. And readers feel “smart” when they’re able to solve the mystery alongside (or even before!) the protagonist.

ALSC: What makes ghosts so appealing to this young audience?

DORI: Because kids like to be scared…in a controlled environment. They feel brave when they read a scary ghost story, but they’re in control of the reading experience. They can put the book down whenever it gets to be too much. And then they can pick it up again when they’re ready for more.

ALSC: Have you met any children who believed there was a ghost in their library?  How do you believe libraries can best build children’s imaginations and develop their curiosity?

DORI: No, I haven’t. But if I did, I would ask that child to tell me all about the ghost. Who is the ghost? What does it look like? Where did it come from? What does it want? I think one way to build a child’s imagination and develop their curiosity is to ask them lots of questions, encourage them to ask questions, and show that you’re interested in what they have to say.

ALSC: What advice would you give to children interested in becoming young detectives like Kaz and Claire?

DORI: To read LOTS of detective stories. There are so many good ones out there. Read Encyclopedia Brown! What’s great about Encyclopedia Brown is there are many mysteries to be solved in each book, and budding detectives can try and solve the case on their own before they turn to the solution. I’d also steer them toward some good nonfiction books about crime solving. In other words, I’d send them to the library!

ALSC: What adventures are next for this dynamic duo? Are there other children’s books you are working on at this time?

DORI: The Haunted Library #3: The Ghost Backstage comes out in October. The Haunted Library #4: The Five o’Clock Ghost comes out Spring 2015. The Haunted Library #5: The Secret Room comes out Summer 2015. And The Haunted Library #6, which is still untitled comes out Fall 2015.

ALSC: Thank you for sharing these ghostly details about your new series and for your thoughtful perspective on the value of libraries for children!

ALSC: Thanks again to Dori Hillestad Butler for appearing. For other stops on The Haunted Library Blog Tour, please check her blog.   

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Robert Lipsyte's THE TWIN POWERS reviewed in Kirkus

Here’s another nice review of Robert Lipsyte's THE TWIN POWERS (Clarion), this time in Kirkus:

“Double the adventure continues in this stand-alone sequel to The Twinning Project (2012). Plenty of back story updates previous readers and catches up new readers to the dilemmas of the first novel. The father of identical (and half-alien) twin brothers Eddie and Tom still remains the prisoner of evil Dr. Traum. Both Earths (the original, where Tom lives, and a second planet, created by aliens and running about 50 years behind in the year 1958, where Eddie lives, in the same New Jersey town) are on a course for destruction, but whether it will be the result of human negligence, government interference or alien demolition remains a mystery. When an alien with a penchant for quoting Mark Twain visits the boys on their respective Earth homes, Eddie and Tom begin a zany escapade to save both planets. Told in a variety of voices, including those of the boys' loyal and diverse friends, who have issues of their own, the chapters capture modern and 1950s pop culture and history—which Eddie and Tom hope to exploit. Lipsyte doesn't always give much detail along the way, but in this case it works, keeping the story light and uncomplicated for reluctant readers. An agreeably quick-paced time-travel romp. (Science fiction. 10-14)”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Robert Lipsyte's THE TWIN POWERS reviewed in School Library Journal

"Chock-full of action and suspense, this series will get readers thinking about important social and environmental issues," says the September 2014 School Library Journal review of Robert Lipsyte's THE TWIN POWERS (Clarion) and referring also to THE TWINNING PROJECT (Clarion), the first book. Here is the whole review: